Healthcare communications talent drought fixes
Recruiting and retaining talent tops the charts of challenges facing healthcare communications agencies and in-house communication departments. Here’s what you can do about it.
Whether you work for a healthcare-focused company or a healthcare communications agency the process for engaging a top-notch freelance medical writer is pretty much the same. Depending on the job at hand, you want to make sure to get the best fit in terms of healthcare subject-area knowledge or experience and functional expertise. And, needless to say, a freelance medical writer should also be a great communicator, dependable and passionate about the work.
In this guide, we’ll discuss:
While many freelance medical writers have PhDs (as well as MDs), it shouldn’t be a requirement. Think of a PhD like a screening mechanism – if someone is willing to spend up to eight years of their life pursing a degree on a very specific aspect of medicine, they’re probably passionate, dedicated, hard-working, organised, have an innate love of writing (or managed to cultivate writing skills) and knows how to properly data check and reference their work.
However, the above description also happens to describe me and many of the people I’ve had experience working with in healthcare communications agencies or client-side, and most of us (including me!) do not have a higher degree (just a quirky love of data). Since we have a foundational understanding of biostats and are critical thinkers, we have the right skills to digest raw data, clearly communicate why specific data results from clinical trials and meta-analyses matter, and have invested the time to learn how to endnote our work. So, don’t be too quick casting aside candidates for the job who would otherwise be ideal for other reasons, just because they don’t have a PhD.
What you’ll often find is that a freelance medical writer will either have a really broad or a really specific educational background in healthcare and/or medicine. S/he may have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a broad topic such as biology or public health or a PhD in a really specific topic like the GLP-1 pathway in people with obesity.
While it’s of course ideal to find an expert, who has studied/worked in the exact area your medical writing project is focused on, most of the time it will be challenging to find someone talented, available and with in-depth knowledge of a very specific area within healthcare/medicine.
The good news is, that for most medical writing or medical communications projects, you don’t need someone to have an incredibly deep knowledge in a specific disease or therapeutic area. Mostly, this is because freelance medical writers are an intellectually curious bunch and their jobs naturally lead them to work across clusters of related topics.
For example, while a medical writer may have fallen in love with investigating the mysteries shrouding Alzheimer’s Disease and produced a lot of great work in that area, that job may have led to an opportunity to write about a data set in rare childhood neurologic diseases. Great work on that project may have then led to a project focused on stem cell transplants in children and that eventually led to work in gene therapy and so on. This illustration gives you a feel for how individuals can pick up a lot of knowledge across a number of areas through freelance medical writing over time.
I remember being surprised whilst working in a healthcare communications agency in New York, that our go-to medical writer and scientific counsel for pharmaceuticals and rare cancers was a guy with a PhD in nutrition.
The fact is, freelance medical writers who are great at their jobs are versatile, and they can extrapolate their expertise to a related, tangential or new disease or therapeutic area. Any writer with integrity will turn down a job they’re not confident they can deliver on.
So, is freelance medical writing, literally just writing? Depending on your personal experience, you may think they exclusively focus on either manuscripts, posters, data presentations, or continuing medical education (CME) materials. However, like most healthcare communications professionals, their expertise is actually really diverse. Some focus on well, writing, whilst others also perform systematic literature reviews with statistical analyses, and others are full blown medical communications experts who can also provide strategic counsel, provide in-depth coverage of scientific sessions at medical congresses, and organise pharmaceutical advisory boards.
Here’s a list of areas of expertise you may be able to expect out of a freelance medical writer:
Strategy and planning:
Most freelance medical writers have experience working with a variety of clients ranging from healthcare communications agencies, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, academic institutions and often directly with physicians themselves.
Many have also published their own research in peer-reviewed journals or even worked for these journals themselves (which can be tremendously valuable if you need help with publication planning or manuscript preparations).
Generally, it’s fairly clear from a freelance medical writer’s CV as to where their expertise and experience lies. Some are also adept at using MLR systems like Veeva Vault that are required by pharmaceutical companies to approve assets that are used for internal and external communications purposes. This is especially helpful because then they can autonomously handle a project end-to-end, including tagging references in the system, clarifying feedback directly with reviewers and reducing costs associated with an account-related project manager handling the logistics of the upload and feedback loop.
Everyone likes a medical writer (or any consultant for that matter!) with a ‘can-do’ attitude, a solutions-oriented approach and who is responsive to email. It’s also critical that s/he is fastidiously detail-orientated (got to get that referencing 100% watertight!), but also flexible if formats, approaches, or copy need to be amended per MLR feedback or to better support a pharmaceutical brand/business objective.
You’ll be able to glean this from the interview by asking questions such as, “how have you resolved a difference of opinion with a client, colleague, or MLR reviewer on a past medical writing or medical communications project? That will give you some insight as to whether they’re good listeners, contrarians, yes-men/women, or will critically think about your feedback and thoughtfully implement it whilst flagging any concerns/alternative options.
Sure, you want a freelance medical writer who is available to take on your project, but you don’t want them to be too available. People who are amazing at what they do (especially freelancers) are generally booked up. However, by operating as a virtual freelancer agency with a collective of medical communications talent, PR-it is able to provide high-quality freelancers on-demand because we have access to a pool of medical writing and medical communications talent who prioritise our projects.
How long is a piece of string, right?! The cost for a freelance medical writer generally varies depending on their educational background (i.e. PhD or MD), number of years in the industry, how in-demand they currently are, complexity and duration of the project, and how they charge for their time (i.e. flat fee project rates, day rates or hourly rates).
Just keep in mind, like everything in life and business, you get what you pay for. Freelance medical writers have highly specialised skills that are in demand and the deliverables are often time-consuming due to research and referencing requirements.
If you want to have complete peace of mind with your medical communications project, then drop us an email. At PR-it, we charge flat fees for our projects and back all of our work with our quality commitment. We’re not happy until you are (really!).
Our medical writers can also be curated into micro teams with medical illustrators (2D & 3D), animators and graphic designers from PR-it’s collective to deliver medical communications projects end-to-end to support education modules, congresses, marketing initiatives, and so on.
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